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Who Won Europe?

BRUSSELS – The fight over who will be the European Commission’s next president is heating up. Several European Union leaders were recently spotted in a small rowboat on a Swedish lake, reportedly scheming against the frontrunner, and British Prime Minister David Cameron has launched a public campaign to reassert the right of EU member states’ governments to decide who will occupy the EU’s executive arm.

The process of choosing the Commission’s president appears to be a conflict between the voice of the people, as expressed in the results of last month’s European Parliament election, and backroom deal-making by governments. But reality is more complex, and the genuine democratic mandate did not go to the person who claims to have “won” the election.

In the run-up to the election, the major European party “families” (there are no pan-European parties, only loose alliances of national parties) each nominated a Spitzenkandidat as their choice for President of the European Commission. The center-right European People’s Party, which gained a narrow plurality of 221 seats in the 751-seat parliament, has claimed victory in the election; and many others, including socialists, greens, and liberals, concur that the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat, Jean-Claude Juncker, has a moral right to be selected as President of the Commission.

In fact, though the EPP won 29% of the seats, versus 24% for the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the S&D can claim victory. After all, its affiliated parties at the national level won a greater number of votes – a combined total of 40 million, compared to 39.9 million for parties affiliated with the EPP. The difference is small, but there can be no doubt that the S&D won the popular vote (24.4% to 23.8%).

Though the election system is purely proportional and the S&D won the popular vote, the reason that it ended up with fewer seats is simple: its affiliated parties won relatively more votes in the larger countries, where it “costs” more voters to gain a single seat. Conversely, the EPP performed relatively better in small countries, where the vote cost per seat is much lower.

The most extreme example is Luxembourg, Juncker’s home country, where the EPP received almost 38% of the popular vote, versus 11% for the S&D – a difference, in absolute terms, of only about 52,000. But the EPP obtained two more MEPs than the S&D, which implies a per seat cost of roughly 26,000 votes.

The other extreme is Italy, where the S&D won 41% of the votes, versus 22% for the EPP. In absolute terms, the difference was more than five million votes, but the S&D won only 14 more MEPs than the EPP. In Italy, the S&D needed about 370,000 voters to gain one MEP, more than 14 times as many as the EPP needed in Luxembourg.

The EPP’s “victory” was thus due mainly to the fact that the ratio of voters per MEP varies greatly across countries. A single vote in Italy (and in other large countries) is worth much less than a vote in smaller countries. The German Constitutional Court recently relied on this fact in a controversial decision striking down the 3% electoral threshold for parties to gain European Parliament seats in Germany (the small far-right National Democratic Party picked up one seat in the European Parliament as a result).

The German court’s rationale was that the European Parliament election is not a true election, because the principle of “one person, one vote” is not respected. This is not only a problem from the standpoint of democratic principles; the results of the recent election have shown the extent to which it can influence political outcomes. Juncker came out ahead in the MEP count for only one reason: he obtained his votes in small countries, and votes are de facto weighted by country size.

Thus, the claim that the European Parliament directly represents Europe’s people and that the people have given the EPP’s candidate a direct popular mandate that the member states’ representatives in the European Council should respect rings hollow. The S&D obtained more votes, giving its Spitzenkandidat, Martin Schulz, a claim to greater democratic legitimacy.